Inside the 70-hour work week: As average employee hours drop, small business owners buck the trend

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Data from the 2016 census suggests Australians are working shorter weeks on average compared with a year ago, but startup founders and small business owners say 10-hour work days are still the norm when building a business.

On Monday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released insights into the state of Australia’s labour force, revealing that despite the time-crunch, many Aussie workers say they feel the average working week has remained at similar hours compared with 2011.

Australian workers were paid for an average of 34.6 hours in the lead-up to the 2016 census, compared with 35.1 hours in 2011.

Around 40% of workers reported being employed for a standard 35-40 hour work week in 2016, a slight increase on the 39% of workers in this position when the last census was undertaken five years ago.

When it comes to the top end of hours worked, 15.9% of Australian workers reported taking on more than 49 hours of work a week, compared with 17.8% in 2o11.

The number of workers putting in more than 40 hours a week spiked in the country’s capital cities, with 53.3% of Sydney residents and 45.4% of Melbourne residents working these longer hours.

But while the length of the working week has remained flat over the past five years across the country, startups and SMEs report to SmartCompany it’s still necessary for business owners to be constantly “on” in the quest to build their companies.

Of the companies on this year’s Smart50 Awards list, 10% said the owners work more than 75 hours each week on their businesses.

The leaders of 18 of the businesses, or 36%, work between 60 and 70 hours each week, while 22% said they work more than 50 hours a week.

Flexibility is the name of the game in many startup operations, but leadership experts have previously told SmartCompany that even the most versatile workplaces can see employees at risk of burnout if they are working lengthy hours.

“I think it’s around the question of what kind of culture we want to provide for our startups and at what cost, both [in terms of] what personal cost to the individual, and any costs to the startup,” head of workplace relations thinktank Reventure, Lindsay McMillan, told SmartCompany earlier this year.

Founders who work more than 50 hours a week say the reality is that, when looking to grow a small business or startup, more success often equals longer hours trying to manage new projects.

Hunter Mason founder Matthew Callender, whose business ranked 19 on this year’s Smart50 list, says the drive to secure new clients for the construction management consultancy never stops.

“Hunter Mason is a service driven business; as a young company new work is continually required to support the business as it grows and matures and to ensure manageable cash flow,” he told SmartCompany.

The founders of legal startup LegalVision, Lachlan McKnight, Evan Tait-Styles, and Ursula Hogben, say they work between 66 and 70 hours a week on average on their business, and for their sector, the workload comes from getting ahead of trends in an industry that is primed for disruption.

“Similar overseas business models focused on the online delivery of legal services have shown great success in improving access,” the founders explain.

With a commitment to shortening response times to clients to within two hours, the LegalVision founders can see the opportunity to create a business that delivers affordable advice in a shorter time period — but that takes a time commitment from management.

The idea of work-life balance is on the minds of many startup founders, but dealing with this is an ongoing process, says founder of Search365, Julian Harris, who works more than 46 hours each week on the company that ranked 10th in this year’s Smart50.

When asked what keeps him up at night, Harris says it’s that “elusive balance” across all facets of the company.

Even when things are going well, someone has to think about the interplay between “new technologies and aging technologies, appropriate time to launch a new product or alter and withdraw a product, staff needs or clients needs,” he says.

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Michael Ratner
Michael Ratner
4 years ago

Accepting all the facts from above, I have decided to Crowd Fund myself in a legal battle.
I will be putting myself in to Fair Work claiming excessive work hours and also no overtime rates for those hours.
I might add a bullying charge because I am particularly hard on myself.
Maybe I need to appeal to The Human Rights Commissioner on behalf of most Business Owners.
One other alternative is that Legislation should be passed ordering all business owners to have to wear a uniform signifying they are business owners.
My idea is a T shirt with a Big Red Target printed on the front and back.

Marcus Dervin
Marcus Dervin
4 years ago

Yes this is not news to business owners like myself, at least ones that are still in business after some time. I think the difference is though that while perhaps some workers can’t wait to leave the office, some of us business owners are quite happy to keep on working, and working, and working…especially when the work is coming in. That’s much better than the stress of when it isn’t!